A wire fraud conviction cost Michael J. Vatter his position as Newburgh fire chief, ended his ability to practice law and thwarted his attempt to reunite with his wife in Florida.
A state appeals court has disbarred Vatter over a federal wire fraud conviction for taking $95,000 in pension benefits.
“By virtue of his felony conviction,” five Second Appellate Division justices concurred on June 12, Vatter “is automatically disbarred.”
Last month, U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel blocked his request for early release from probation to move to Florida.
Vatter, 60, grew up in a tumultuous home in Brooklyn, then Central Valley in Orange County, with two alcoholic parents, according to a sentencing memorandum in the wire fraud case. But when he joined the Woodbury Fire Department as a junior member, at age 16, he found a sense of normalcy in the camaraderie of the firehouse and in the role of helping others.
He became a Newburgh firefighter in 1980, and over a 20-year career worked his way up the ranks to deputy fire chief. He retired from the fire service in 2000 and began collecting a pension.
Vatter got a law degree from Pace University and was admitted to the bar in 2004. In 2009, after practicing law in Manhattan, Newburgh hired him as fire chief.
He continued collecting the pension through 2014, despite a state law that requires benefits to be suspended when retirees earn more than $30,000 a year.
Vatter knew of the limitation, had not applied for a waiver, had not reported the extra earnings and had collected an extra $95,106.
Vatter pleaded guilty in 2016 to wire fraud and he was sentenced to time served, three years of supervised release and 200 hours of community service. He was ordered to pay back the pension fund and he was fined $50,000.
“After his arrest, living in New York became financially disastrous for him and his wife as he remained unemployed,” his attorney, William J. Harrington stated last month in a letter to judge Seibel.
The couple decided to sell their home and move to south Florida, where they figured the cost of living and lower taxes “might allow them to live within their means.”
Mrs. Vatter moved in March, and Vatter, still on probation until September, has been staying with friends in New York.
Harrington asked Seibel to cut Vatter’s probation short by three months, so he could move in with his wife in Florida, assist her with health issues and stabilize their finances.
He has paid back the pension fund and part of the $50,000 fine, and he has found work writing public safety manuals for about $66,000 a year.
But Harrington acknowledged that when Vatter helped move his wife to Florida in March, he had overstayed the approved visit by 10 days, and his probation officer had imposed a penalty of 60 days of home confinement in New York.
Ending his probation on June 16, Harrington argued last month, would serve the primary purpose of supervised release: facilitating the integration of offenders back into the community rather than punishing them.
Seibel rejected Vatter’s request.
The circumstances are in large part of Vatter’s own making, she ruled on May 15. He has not earned leniency by good behavior. He has not paid the fine and has resisted doing so. His failure to comply with a court order suggests that without the threat of a probation violation, he will continue to ignore the court.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Vatter’s poor decisions will redound to his wife’s detriment,” Seibel stated, “but that surely cannot be a surprise to him.”